7 Trans POC Activists You Should Know
Here are just seven of the many trans people of color who are advocates, writers, scholars and entertainers making a lasting impact in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
CeCe McDonald is a bi trans woman and LGBTQ prison-reform activist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She came to national attention in June 2012 for accepting a plea bargain of 41 months for the second-degree manslaughter of a man she stabbed after McDonald and her friends were assaulted in Minneapolis outside a bar near closing time.
McDonald said she saw how her case was progressing so took the plea bargain rather than face trial and risk a possible 20-year term. According to the Bay Area Reporter, her conviction "sparked outrage, and was viewed by many as an act of transphobia and racism against a woman who defended herself." Although a woman, McDonald was housed in two men's prisons.
Experiencing the inhumane treatment of prisoners firsthand, McDonald began speaking out against the criminal justice system. “Prisons aren’t safe for anyone, and that’s the key issue,” she said. For McDonald, the issue of safety included her status as a transgender female in a men’s prison. Transgender prisoners were assigned to prisons based on their sex at birth rather than their gender identity. The penal system frequently placed them in solitary confinement—a psychologically debilitating isolation—purportedly for the safety of the individual. The experience served to strengthen McDonald’s character and establish her resolve to become a transgender leader.
“Free CeCe,” a documentary about her experiences, focused on the issue of violence against trans women of color In 2014, McDonald was profiled by the Rolling Stone and included as part of the Advocate's annual "40 Under 40" list In August 2014 she was awarded the Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Award by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.
J Mase III
Based in the Bronx, N.Y., the trans-queer author, performer and teaching poet is the creator of the national performance event Cupid Ain’t @#$%!: An Anti-Valentine’s Day Poetry Movement. J Mase is also the founder of awQward, a first-of-its-kind talent agency run by trans people that uplifts the work of trans and queer people of color. He began coming out as trans at the age of 19. He told the New York Times,
“Back then, I believed in this very romantic myth of a cohesive LGBTQ community. … What I discovered was that the reality of being a trans person of color is often talked about within the LGBTQ community, but not actually addressed.”
With the creation of awQward, he hopes that “[trans people of color] artists are able to preserve our history, culture and make a livable wage while doing what we love.”
Janet Mock is an American writer, TV host, and transgender rights activist who broke ground in 2014 with the release of her first book "Redefining Realness", a pioneering and profound memoir which was the first biography written from the perspective of a young trans person. It debuted on the New York Times bestsellers list in 2014. Her second book, "Surpassing Certainty", a memoir about the years in her life when she was not public about being trans, was praised by Kirkus as a “defining chronicle of strength and spirit…brimming with liberated self-discovery.”
On January 21, 2017, the sought-after speaker and advocate (who founded #GirlsLikeUs and #TransBookDrive addressed millions on stage at the Women’s March on Washington, where she urged for an intersectional and inclusive movement that included all women: trans women, undocumented people, sex workers and disabled folk.
“I stand here today, most of all because I am my sister’s keeper…Our approach to freedom need not be identical, but it must be intersectional and inclusive.”
Janet began her media career at People.com, where she worked for five years climbing the ranks at Time Inc. from Staff Writer to Staff Editor upon her departure in 2012. She has since produced the HBO documentary The Trans List, created the column “Beauty Beyond Binaries” for Allure.com, which broke ground by exploring pretty privilege, and the interview podcast Never Before for Lenny Letter with Pineapple Street Media, which has featured Tina Knowles-Lawson & Rep. Maxine Waters.
Kai M. Green
Kai Green is a writer, poet, scholar and filmmaker born in Oakland, Calif., who is dedicated to raising consciousness around self-care, self-love, sexual and emotional health, sexual and state violence, healthy masculinities, and black feminism.
Green’s short film It Gets Messy in Here examines the lives of transgender men and masculine-identified women of color and their bathroom experiences. Green is an Assistant Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality at Williams College. His work is uniquely vested in querying forms of self-representation and communal political mobilization by Black LGBT persons in the urban context, combines art and activism with research on race, gender, and sexuality in Black LGBT communities and cultural production.
Kye Allums is a former college basketball player for the George Washington Colonials women's basketball team of George Washington University (GWU) and a transgender pioneer. He made headlines when he came out in 2010 while playing on the women’s basketball team at GWU. Allums became the first openly transgender Division I athlete in NCAA history. After graduation, he decided to focus on LGBT activism and has spoken at more than 32 colleges and universities about the trans* athlete experience. He has also written his first book, Who Am I? Allums identifies as a queer, fluid trans* and prefers the pronouns “he” or “him” and “they” or “them.”
"I wanted to set an example for other people who are afraid to be themselves."
Kye produced a project called "I Am Enough", which encourages other LGBTQ individuals to come out and talk about their experiences. The project allows individuals to submit their stories, thereby showing people who share the same issues that they are not alone.
In 2015, he was inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame
Laverne Cox is an American actress and LGBT advocate. She rose to prominence with her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, becoming the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the acting category, and the first to be nominated for an Emmy Award since composer/musician Angela Morley in 1990. In 2015, she won a Daytime Emmy Award in Outstanding Special Class Special as executive producer for Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word. This made her the first openly transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy as an executive producer. Also in 2015, she became the first openly transgender person to have a wax figure of herself at Madame Tussauds. In 2017, she became the first transgender person to play a transgender series regular on broadcast TV as Cameron Wirth on CBS's Doubt.
Cox co-produced and co-hosted the VH1 makeover television series TRANSform Me. In April 2014, Cox was honored by GLAAD with its Stephen F. Kolzak Award for her work as an advocate for the transgender community. In June 2014, Cox became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine. In February 2018, Cox became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of any Cosmopolitan magazine (specifically, Cosmopolitan South Africa)
"It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist"
Laverne Cox has been noted by her LGBT peers, and many others, for being a trailblazer for the transgender community, and has won numerous awards for her activist approach in spreading awareness. Her impact and prominence in the media have led to a growing conversation about transgender people, specifically transgender women, and how being transgender intersects with one's race. In May 2016, Cox was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from The New School in New York City for her progressive work in the fight for gender equality.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was a well-known New York City drag queen who fought police at the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and became a trailblazing transgender, gay rights, and AIDS activist. Immediately after Stonewall, Johnson joined the nascent Gay Liberation Front.
In 1970 she co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) with fellow Stonewall agitator, Sylvia Rivera. At the time, transvestitism was illegal in New York. Gender-nonconforming people, particularly those of color, faced intolerance, harassment, and violence. Like Johnson, many lived on the streets and resorted to sex work for their survival. S.T.A.R. created a shelter where transgender adults and youth could share food, clothing, and support in relative safety. At the residence, Johnson’s maternal behavior earned her the nickname “queen mother.”
Johnson performed at local clubs and became a visible presence at gay rights events and protests. Andy Warhol photographed her and produced screen prints of her portrait. Although she favored the pronoun “she,” Johnson described herself as a “gay transvestite.” When asked about her middle initial, she would reply that “P” stood for “pay it no mind”— words that helped her persevere.
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